Just For Laughs 2015: Sir Patrick Stewart Gala

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Our comedy editor Garrett Martin is at the Just For Laughs comedy festival in Montreal this week. Check in every day for his latest report.

Sir Patrick Stewart Gala
Salle Wilfred-Pelletier

I didn’t know what the Sir Patrick Stewart Gala was going to be. The website had a photo of the guy and a list of stand-up comedians who’d be appearing and no other info. Is it like a roast? Is it just Stewart introducing some comedians? I had no idea. Well, I guess I did have an idea, because I just put forth two potential scenarios, and one of them, the second, is right on the nose: It’s a stand-up show emceed by Patrick Stewart. And as far as stand-up shows emceed by Patrick Stewart go, it was perfectly okay. Just fine, even.

Imagine a midsized theater that looks a bit like a sci-fi film set with a few thousand seats and a few dozen TV cameras constantly swooping around. Ostensibly a night to celebrate Patrick Stewart and his career and his being a guy who has done things that people like, it basically turned into a series of stand-up comedians doing seven or ten minutes of their regular sets, but with a few Montreal jokes or “oh my God I can’t even that’s Jean-Luc Picard (and/or a knight) RIGHT THERE” exchanges tossed in. And if you live in whatever part of Canada this will be broadcast in, you won’t even have to imagine it—just turn on your TV, some day in the future, when this thing is airing, and see for your own self.

It started with Stewart in an intentionally tacky knight outfit, basically cardboard in tinfoil, as he gave an opening monologue about being a knight and an actor who’s reasonably familiar with Montreal. Stewart’s always a commanding presence, with the rhythm of a classically trained Shakespearean actor instead of a stand-up comic. He’d say a line and wait for the applause. It wasn’t stiff, it wasn’t natural, but it was often funny, and almost always filthy—the writers loved making him talk about his boner and his hard-on and his constant sexual conquests. He came out throughout the night, doing a few minutes between every comic, and pretty much every joke after the opening segment was about sex. They really wore out whatever shock there might have been in a prestigious living legend / nerd icon talking dirty, but Stewart’s confidence, commitment and innate charisma elevated the repetitive material.

Stewart’s most memorable bit came when he flashed some of his well-known social media photos on a screen and explained the “true” stories what was happening in them. Yes, some of them came from the series with Ian McKellen. Every joke was sexual (they weren’t celebrating the New Year, but Stewart’s 2014th STD!), to the point where it was kind of easy to predict the punchlines by the end, but he seemed especially gleeful when growling through these jokes, his magnificent voice going full Shakespeare, like he was Prospero working blue.

The format felt a little awkward to this first-time Gala attendee, even if it’s a beloved Just For Laughs tradition. Stewart was the star, and comics like Pete Zedlacher and Kyle Kinane felt the need to reference him, but it always felt a little forced, like they had to squeeze out a joke or two about the host before hitting their own material. Kinane at least used Stewart’s legitimate knighthood as a launching pad to one of his familiar topics, his own questionable life choices. The alternative wasn’t much better, though: most later comics didn’t mention Stewart at all, which made the disconnect between a non-comic performing lines written by others and a series of stylistically divergent professional comedians even more pronounced.

Most of those comics did a fine job performing in front of a large audience that didn’t know they’d be there and probably didn’t much care. The crowd warmed up to all of them, from Montreal’s own David Acer, who was like an endearingly cornball dad with joke magic tricks, to former SNL cast member Jim Breuer, who really hates soccer and loves making animal noises. The audience most seemed to love the British TV star Russell Howard, who I’ve never seen perform before, but who was hopefully speeding through his material to get as much done in his time slot as possible—if he’s that fast-paced and manic throughout an entire set, I’d probably lose my breath and start sweating just sitting in the audience.

Also popular with the people was Sebastian Maniscalco, who was not quite what I expected. He relies heavily on his Italian-American upbringing, which brings certain expectations along with it, but his performing style confounds some of them. He wasn’t loud and boorish, but spoke almost in a whisper, as if to draw us in. He didn’t swagger around the stage, but almost pranced, accentuating some of his jokes with graceful, almost balletic maneuvers. I expected a guy doing a Jersey Shore gimmick but instead he was a little bit quieter, a little subtler, and from a physical perspective more of an actual performer than a lot of comics. Some of his jokes were okay, too.

Kinane was the highlight for me, and although I expected him to feel out of his element, it didn’t seem to phase him. Part of his appeal is his everyman nature, which makes him a great fit for an indie rock club like the one he performed at in his most recent special, I Liked His Old Stuff Better. He didn’t get the biggest reaction from the crowd, but even on a big stage in a nice theater he came off as honest and relatable, like a guy you’d talk to at a bar now holding court to an entire room full of people. His first-hand tales of approaching 40 after living the life just a little too long hit incredibly close to me, though, so perhaps it’s not just the hilariousness but the familiarity that speaks to me.

I wasn’t previously familiar with Zedlacher, but he did a taut, well-constructed set about metal band roadies and other dude-centric topics that started the show off nicely. He also looks like tough guy novelist Richard Marcinko with his beard, and thankfully he didn’t go Rogue Warrior on us. Rounding out the line-up was Gina Yashere, who’s really funny and likable and a great performer, but who also spent half her set inexplicably talking about the Olympics, repeating the same basic joke twice, even though its length detracted from whatever juice the callback might’ve had.

The Gala’s strength is as a brief overview of a handful of comedians, giving me a small taste and letting me decide if I’d like to see their own headlining shows elsewhere in Montreal throughout the week. The celebrity host might be the draw and the spine of the show, but Patrick Stewart wound up feeling pretty tangential overall. He was the guy on the poster to get the people who maybe aren’t that into stand-up through the door and in the seats. It’s not a bad plan and the crowd was more than receptive to every comic that played so everything worked out in the end, even if Stewart had to talk way more about his erections than any one man (a knight, even!) should ever have to in public.